The stocked (and restocked) grocery stores amid this pandemic highlight the size and scope of the U.S. agriculture business. Integral to that industry is a massive workforce — including hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in fields across the US on H-2A visas.
A record 256,667 H-2A workers were hired in 2019, 90% of them from Mexico. An imbalance of power allows employers to skirt laws and regulations with impunity. With many workers taking out loans to secure their job, and a visa program that ties them to a single employer, workers have little-to-no bargaining power.
From September through January, we conducted in-depth interviews with 100 H-2A workers for our new report, Ripe for Reform: Abuse of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program. The findings confirm that the program is rife with abuse. Interviewees reported discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft, and health and safety violations by their employers — and a chilling lack of recourse. The report also documents how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the existing systemic inequities in the program, stranding workers in Mexico and endangering them on the job.
Here are a few startling findings from our respondents:
- 100% experienced at least one serious legal violation of their rights, and 94% experienced three or more.
- 86% said that women were either not hired or were offered less favorable pay or less desirable jobs than men
- 45% experienced overcrowded and/or unsanitary housing conditions.
- 35% did not have necessary safety equipment to do the job
- 43% were not paid the wages they were promised
The report includes 6 profiles highlighting workers’ personal stories of how seemingly lucrative job opportunities can turn into nightmares. It also features sections on the unique challenges facing farmworker women, as well as indigenous workers – two populations that are disproportionately vulnerable to abuse and that go largely underreported.
Ripe for Reform embraces a fully re-imagined approach to the program, with 15 concrete actions that will create a guestworker model that corrects power imbalances and ensures dignity, safety, and justice. These are values we advance through our advocacy, organizing, and case work. The report also includes recommended steps legislators and federal agencies can take to increase worker safety and chase out bad actors in the H-2A program.